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Soon as I Get Home*

FamilyLifeOne of the major changes we seem to have seen in crime fiction, especially over the last few decades, is the crime novel in which we follow the protagonist’s home life as well as the criminal investigation. In fact, in some cases, the protagonist’s family is caught up in the web of crime.

I decided to take a closer look at this phenomenon and see whether there really are as many novels that detail the home life of protagonists as we think there are. To address this question, I chose 301 books from among those I’ve read. Then, I sorted them into two categories: those that feature home life scenes and sub-plots; and those that do not. This wasn’t as easy as you might think. Does a scene in which the sleuth has a cup of tea at home and then goes off to investigate ‘count’ as a home life scene? What’s more, the data was, as always, limited to books I’ve read. There are many thousands of crime novels I’ve not read. But that said, here’s what I found.

 

Protanoist Home Life

 

As you can see, there’s absolutely no question that the vast majority of novels (80%) in this data set are stories in which we learn more about the protagonist then, perhaps, whether she or he is married.

Why is this? One possibility is that readers all have home lives, too. It could be that authors and publishers have found that readers identify more closely with, and prefer, books in which the protagonist has a family and other home life obligations and interests. Or, it could be that that ‘home life’ dimension offers authors more possibilities for conflict, tension, story arcs and the like. The one thing we can say is that such books sell. Otherwise, I doubt that editors and publishers would go along with the ‘home life’ dimension.

Is this a recent phenomenon, or has it been going on all along, but we just haven’t noticed? I decided to look at my data a bit more closely to see if there might be some sort of answer there. I sorted the books in the data set into four categories, based on date of original publication. Here’s what I found.

 

Home Life Scenes Over Time

 

As you see, we’ve got a really interesting trend here. Of the 37 books published before 1950, 28 of them (76%) have either no information about the sleuth/protagonist’s home life, or very little. For instance, we know that Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple is not married, and we do see some domestic scenes in those novels. But there aren’t really story arcs about her family, and we don’t really see her trying to juggle home life and her sleuthing. That seems to be the case with the majority of novels in this category.

As we move to the period between 1950 and 1980, things start to change. Of the 44 books in this category, 25 (57%) feature home life scenes. There are 19 (43%) that have no such scenes. Basically, it’s a more or less even match. Why the change? It might be the impact of developing interest in psychology. Or it might be growing reader interest in more fully rounded characters. And those aren’t the only possibilities. But we do see more books featuring protagonists’ home lives.

If this data is representative of what’s happening in the larger crime fiction world, there’s been a major shift since 1980. Among the 63 books in this set that were published between 1980 and 2000, 58 (92%) feature sub-plots or at least several scenes that involve the protagonist’s home life. That pattern is also quite obvious in the 157 books in this set that have been published since 2000. In that group, 149 (95%) feature such scenes and sub-plots.

Many readers enjoy stories where they feel they’re getting to know the main character beyond the criminal investigation. For the author, such scenes and sub-plots do offer some flexibility and lots of possibilities for conflict, tension, depth of story and the like. So it probably shouldn’t be surprising that publishers have seen this, have noticed what’s happened to sales of such books, and encourage authors to weave such scenes and sub-plots into their stories.

What do you think of all this? Do you enjoy books with domestic scenes and sub-plots? Do they annoy you? If you’re a writer, do you include such scenes? Why(not)? I’d love to hear from you about this. Please feel free to let your voice be heard in the poll below, too, and we’ll talk about this again in about a week.

 


 
 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Charlie Smalls, Timothy Graphenreed, Zachary Walzer, Harold Wheeler and Luther Vandross.

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A Fool’s Errand

tarot-card-the-foolCrime writer and fellow blogger D.S. Nelson has offered another terrific story prompt – this ‘photo of the tarot card ‘The Fool.’ Thanks so much, D.S., for the inspiration! Here is the story that came from it:

 

A Fool’s Errand

 

‘I’m not selling!’ Marcus said. He glared across the kitchen table at his son, leaning forward for emphasis.
‘I don’t get it,’ Todd said. He ran an impatient hand through his salt-and-pepper hair, looked away, and looked back at his father. ‘I just don’t see what the big deal is, Dad. You know you could make a fortune selling this place.’
‘You mean you could make a fortune! You know you get everything when I go.’
‘That’s not fair. You’re the one who was talking about a condo, and I think it would be a great idea. You know keeping up with this place is hard on you.’
‘That’s my problem. Besides, I got a kid comes over to cut the grass, and Lori comes in to clean once a week. The rest I can do.’
‘So you won’t even think about it?’
‘Not a chance.’

Todd shook his head a little. He’d known this was a fool’s errand from the beginning. Still, at least he’d tried. The thing that bothered him the most was that his father thought he was pushing the matter out of greed. Of course Todd would be glad of money. Who wouldn’t? But he really was concerned, too. The old man was in his late seventies, and beginning to slow down.

Tired of arguing, Todd got up from the table and walked over to the kitchen window. Through it, he could see the flower beds his father had cultivated so carefully over the years. ‘You’re really attached to this place, aren’t you?’ he finally said.
‘You could say that.’
‘All right, look, I have to get to the office. But we will talk about this again, OK? Skye’ll call you later about dinner this weekend.’
Marcus nodded. He liked Skye; she and Todd made a good couple. And he was glad for the change of subject. ‘Sounds good.’

Todd and Skye got there at six that Saturday. After everyone had greeted each other, Marcus said, ‘I’m going to bring up a bottle of cabernet.’ He half-rose from his chair, but Skye put up a hand. ‘I’ll get it. Basement, right? Left side?’
‘That’s right,’ Marcus said. He was a little relieved, truth be told. The basement stairs weren’t as easy as they used to be.

A few minutes later, Skye came back into the living room, a bottle of wine in one hand, and a cigarette lighter in the other. ‘I thought you were a non-smoker,’ she said.
Todd saw the change in his father’s face. ‘Where the hell did you get that?’ Marcus snapped, but he wasn’t convincing. His pale face and tightened jaw gave him away.
‘I was getting the wine, and I saw a big spider. I went to kill it and found this on the floor under one of the wine racks. Almost missed it, actually.’
‘Probably the guy who fixed my hot water heater last month. Here, I’ll throw it away.’ Marcus reached out a hand and Skye gave him the lighter. Todd was no expert, but it looked like it’d been in the basement a lot longer than a month. Marcus put it in his pocket and then gestured towards the wine bottle. ‘OK, let’s see if this is as good as it’s supposed to be.’

The next morning, Todd stopped by his father’s house on the way to work. He hadn’t been able to shake the feeling that there was something very wrong. Skye had tried to reassure him. ‘You know how your dad is,’ she’d said. ‘He’s stubborn and he keeps things to himself. He probably used to smoke and doesn’t want to admit it.’
That must be it. Still, just to be sure, he wanted to talk to his father again.

When Todd arrived, he saw Marcus working on the flower beds. He walked around towards the yard gate. Marcus didn’t hear him coming. He seemed intent on whatever he was doing. Todd opened the gate and walked quietly towards his father. He got close just in time to see Marcus drop something into a hole he’d obviously just dug. It was the lighter!
‘What are you doing?’ he called out.
Marcus started at the sound of his son’s voice. He straightened up as quickly as he could and brushed the dirt from his hands. ‘Just – just some gardening,’ he managed to say.
‘With a lighter? Come on, Dad!’

Todd kept a steady gaze on his father. He watched the fight slowly drain out of Marcus. Suddenly he looked like the old man he was getting to be. ‘You wouldn’t understand,’ he finally mumbled.
‘Try me,’ Todd said. He took Marcus’ arm and the two walked back into the house, where they sat down in the kitchen. Todd poured a glass of water for his father. Marcus took a sip and then began. ‘I never wanted anybody to know. It was years ago, anyway. You were at college. Remember I talked about buying into that electronics company?’
‘I think so.’
‘I decided to go ahead with it. Not too much, just a few thousand. I wanted to see how it’d do before I invested a lot.’ He took another sip of water and went on. ‘But then I found out it was a money-laundering operation. So I wanted out. But Dennis – he was supposed to be my business partner – wouldn’t listen. Said I had to stay in. I tried to get him to change his mind, but that was a fool’s errand. He came over one night. Wanted me to put in more money. That was a fool’s errand, too, and I told him that. He – he didn’t care. Wouldn’t leave. Then he started to threaten me. That’s when – well, when I did what I had to do. I never meant to, honest to God. It just happened.’

Todd sat silently. He thought about the carefully tended flower beds. And the lighter. And his father’s choices. ‘You know, Dad, maybe selling the house can wait.’

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Scandi-lous! ;-)

Petrona LogoThe shortlist for the 2016 Petrona Award for Best Scandinavian Crime Novel has recently been announced. I think it’s very exciting to see so much great Scandinavian crime fiction available. And it’s all got me thinking about…

 

 

 

 

…a quiz! Oh please! You know this blog is dangerous!😉

 

Some excellent crime fiction has come to us from the Scandinavian countries. And as a dedicated crime fiction fan, you know all of your Scandinavian crime fiction, don’t you? Or do you? Take this handy quiz and find out. Match each question to the correct answer, and see how many you get right.

 

Ready? Pour yourself an Akvavit to begin…if you dare!😉

 

Akvavit

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No More War, Please*

ANZACDay2016One of the best things about the crime fiction community is that we can all put aside the things that could divide us, and we can learn from each other. We all have different backgrounds, different cultures, different values, different politics, and so on. And instead of letting those things come between us, we are enriched by them. We all have different takes on books, different kinds of books we like and don’t like, and so on. But that only gives each of us a broader perspective. At the end of the day, I am a better person, and certainly a better-informed reader, because of the other people in this wonderful crime fiction community.

As I post this, it’s ANZAC Day, a day to remember those who gave their lives as part of the ANZAC forces. As I think about those who died, and of their families, I can’t help but imagine what a much better world we’d have if other people took lessons from the worldwide crime fiction community. Oh, don’t worry; I’m not completely naïve. I don’t have too many illusions about global reality. You can’t if you write crime fiction. But think what we’ve accomplished as a crime fiction community. We disagree – sometimes strongly. We don’t all see the world in the same way. And perhaps privately we get annoyed with each other. And we talk about death and murder a lot. But guess what? We’re friends. We work with each other. We learn from each other. We respect one another. We have commonalities that bind us. And I’ve seen how we all support each other when something goes very well – or very badly.

That’s one reason I feel so fortunate to be included in the crime fiction community. And it’s one reason I always take time out on this blog to reflect on ANZAC Day. So many Australians and Kiwis have been kind to me, and I’ve learned so much from my Kiwi and Aussie friends. You know who you are, and I hope you know how grateful I am to you. So, although I’m neither Australian nor a New Zealander, I stand with those who are, in remembrance of too many young people who lost their lives too soon. Their loss is a tragedy for us all.

Think what it might be like if everyone could work together, help each other, and learn from each other, the way we do in the crime fiction community. Perhaps if more people did that, there’d be less awful loss of life. Too idealistic? Quite possibly. Never gonna happen? Perhaps. But why not try? Wouldn’t it be a good way to remember those who died, by working to make sure that others don’t have to?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bronski Beat’s No More War.

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Opening Day For Authors ;-)

Opening DayThe 2016 baseball season has begun, and for a lot of people, season openers signal the start of spring. Whether or not you like baseball, it’s a part of the culture of North America.

It all has me wondering what it would be like if authors and publishers got the ‘baseball game’ treatment. So if you’ll be kind enough to buy your disbelief a snack and a drink and ask it to check out the scorecard, let’s take a look at:

 

Opening Day For Authors

 

Announcer 1: Good afternoon, everyone. I’m Trey Toggins.

Announcer 2: And I’m Sandra Stabler.

Trey: It’s opening day here at Literary Park, and everyone’s excited for this matchup between Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins.

Sandra: They sure are, Trey. It’s going to be quite a game, too. I’m told everyone’s healthy and ready to go.

Trey: That’s good to hear, Sandra. Some really strong players being fielded today, too.

Sandra: Well, both Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins got some great trades at the end of last season, so they’ve both got deep benches.

Trey: Yes, they do. OK, get ready to enjoy a great game, everyone!

 

The camera pans the two teams and the crowd as the National Anthem is played.

 

Trey: Simon & Schuster is up first and they’re leading off with Will Waverly.

Sandra: Now that’s an interesting decision, Trey. This is only Waverly’s second year on the team, but he had a very strong debut science fiction release last year, and finished the season with some impressive numbers.

Trey: Well, let’s see if he can continue looking good. Oooh! Swing and a miss! Looks like he may need some work on that new plot of his.

Sandra:  Looks like it. But we’ll see what he does now.

Trey: And there it goes! Base hit to left field. He’s not going to get much out of it, but it got him to first, and he’s holding up there.

Sandra: Smart move on Waverly’s part. He’s got a solid plot for his new novel, but no sense stretching it too far.

Trey: You’re right, Sandra. Now, here comes Marla Mathews.

Sandra: She had a solid year last season, Trey. Her latest historical novel was well-received, and I’ve been told she’s signed to a new two-book contract.

Trey: She’s certainly looking good. Pitch is coming…it’s a line shot off the fence! She’s going to make it to second, and Waverly takes a chance and runs for third. Oh! They get him just before he gets there!

Sandra: And that’s something he’s having to work on, Trey. He’s going to have to pick up the pacing. A slow-moving middle just does not work in a story.

Trey: That’s right, Sandra. You have to keep the pace going. Now, with one out, Matthews at second, and nobody on first or third, it’s Brian Brillhouse coming up to the plate.

Sandra: Brillhouse is actually a very solid player as a rule, but he had a slump last season. His newest crime fiction release didn’t do well, and they’re looking at him very carefully now. If he can just focus, though, he should be OK.

Trey: That’s what it takes, Sandra. Let’s see what he’s going to do here. There’s Matthews ready to move, but it’s strike one on Brillhouse. Here comes the pitch…strike two! Brillhouse is looking a little rattled.

Sandra: He is going to need to settle down, Trey.

Trey: And here’s the pitch…it’s a fly ball to left field, where it’s easily caught. Matthews is moving, though…she tags up and takes third!  Simon & Schuster could end this half inning with some runs on the board. Here comes their cleanup hitter Kyle Kanning, one of the strongest thriller writers out there right now.

Sandra: Absolutely, Trey. He’s been at the top of the league for the last three seasons, and he told me before our broadcast that he’s feeling really good about this season, too. In fact, Simon & Schuster just renewed him for a record four books.

Trey: Impressive. Now, here’s the pitch. It’s being clocked at 92 miles an hour…Kanning hits it to deep right field….and it’s outta here!! Home run Matthews, and now Kanning’s going to make it home, too!  And just like that, Simon & Schuster puts two on the board!

Sandra: What a hit! But that’s the kind of strength Kanning brings to this team.

Trey: Yes, he does. Now, here’s Teresa Towne. She’s been one of their more reliable romance writers.

Sandra. That’s true, Trey. Her last three novels have done well. But she’s been talking about retiring after this season, and she had that wrist injury last year. So we’ll see how she does.

Trey: Here’s the pitch…and it’s caught at first base, to end the top of the first inning.
 

Both announcers face the camera

 

Trey: We’ll be back for the second half of the inning after this break.

Sandra: Don’t go anywhere!

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